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How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives

Ironically, despite porn’s promise of improving consumers’ sex lives, there is growing evidence that porn consumption is linked to sexual dysfunction and less sexual satisfaction.

By May 13, 2021July 19th, 2021No Comments

Back in the 1950s, two Nobel prize winning researchers named Tinbergen and Magnus played a trick on butterflies.Tinbergen, N. (1951). The study of instinct. Oxford: Clarendon Press.COPY  After figuring out which marks on female butterfly wings were most eye-catching to males, the researchers created their own cardboard butterfly models. They exaggerated the patterns on the wings to make them brighter and flashier than would ever be found in nature. Essentially, they created the world’s first butterfly supermodels.

And the male butterflies fell for it. They went straight for the cardboard mock-ups and tried to mate with them. Ignoring the real female butterflies that were right there in plain sight, the males gave all their attention to the exaggerated pictures. Sound familiar?

Like the duped butterflies, porn consumers can get so obsessed chasing flashy fantasies that they miss out on real life and real relationships. This is one of the big lies of porn, that you can have it both ways indefinitely; you can enjoy the immediate exaggerated gratification of thousands of virtual sex partners and also have the long-term satisfaction of a real committed relationship.

The truth is, porn can take a heavy toll on real-life relationships.Minarcik, J., Wetterneck, C. T., & Short, M. B. (2016). The effects of sexually explicit material use on romantic relationship dynamics. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(4) 700-707. doi:10.1556/2006.5.2016.078COPY Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysunction? A Review with Clinical Reports, Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017COPY  Many people report feeling distressed or hurt by their partner’s pornography consumption,Tylka, T. L., & Kroon Van Diest, A. M. (2015). You Looking at Her “Hot” Body May Not be “Cool” for Me: Integrating Male Partners’ Pornography Use into Objectification Theory for Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(1), 67–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY  but even if a partner has no issues with their significant other’s porn habit, it can still damage the relationship. In fact, research consistently shows that porn consumption is associated with poorer relationship quality and sexual dissatisfaction.Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2018). Women's perceptions of their male partners’ pornography consumption and relational, sexual, self, and body satisfaction: Toward a theoretical model.42(1), 55-73. doi:10.1080/23808985.2017.1412802COPY Stewart, D. N., & Szymanski, D. M. (2012). Young adult women’s reports of their male romantic partner’s pornography use as a correlate of their self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction. Sex Roles, 67(5), 257-271. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0164-0COPY  The idea that porn is a personal decision that doesn’t affect anyone else is simply not supported by the research.

Related: How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner

Unrealistic expectations 

One of the common defenses of porn is that porn is just watching people have sex—and what could be more natural and normal than that? While sex is natural and normal, porn is something entirely different. Make no mistake, porn is a product. Pornographers have a lot to gain by driving traffic to their sites, so they dress up their product to grab your attention. That “dressing up” is exactly what makes porn so unnatural.

Consider how professional porn performers have a whole team of people to make every detail look perfect, from directing and filming to lighting and makeup, maybe even a plastic surgeon or two to thank. With some careful editing, a typical 45-minute porn flick that took three days to shoot can appear to have happened all at once, without a break. Film the right bodies from the right angles at the right moments, edit out all the mistakes, Photoshop away any imperfections, add a catchy soundtrack, and you have something most definitely not like real sex—you end up with something that is definitely more “cardboard” than “butterfly.”

This is especially concerning, considering that porn can shape the way people think about sex. Despite how unrealistic pornography is, research indicates that many young people report trying to copy porn in their own sexual encounters, and that the pressure to imitate porn was often an aspect of unhealthy relationships.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). 'Without Porn … I Wouldn't Know Half the Things I Know Now': A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of sex research, 52(7), 736–746. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY  Studies also show that increased pornography consumption is associated with the enjoyment of degrading, uncommon, or aggressive sexual behaviors.Ezzell, M. B., Johnson, J. A., Bridges, A. J., & Sun, C. F. (2020). I (dis)like it like that: Gender, pornography, and liking sex. J.Sex Marital Ther., 46(5), 460-473. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1758860COPY  And number of other studies also show that the sexual scripts in pornography can socialize consumers toward sexual aggression,Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12201COPY  cheating,Rasmussen, K. (2016). A historical and empirical review of pornography and romantic relationships: Implications for family researchers. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(2), 173-191. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12141COPY  and risky sexual behaviors.Koletić G. (2017). Longitudinal associations between the use of sexually explicit material and adolescents' attitudes and behaviors: A narrative review of studies. Journal of adolescence, 57, 119–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.04.006COPY Wright, P. J., & Bae, S. (2016). Pornography and male socialization. In Y. J. Wong & S. R. Wester (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology®. APA handbook of men and masculinities (p. 551–568). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14594-025COPY 

Leading relationship experts, Doctors John and Julie Gottman of the world-renowned Gottman Institute have expressed serious concerns about the effects of pornography on sexual relationships. They explain,

Pornography may be just such a supernormal stimulus. With pornography use, much more of a normal stimulus may eventually be needed to achieve the response a supernormal stimulus evokes. In contrast, ordinary levels of the stimulus are no longer interesting. This may be how normal sex becomes much less interesting for porn users. The data supports this conclusion. In fact, use of pornography by one partner leads the couple to have far less sex and ultimately reduces relationship satisfaction.”Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (April 5, 2016). An open letter on porn. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-open-letter-on-porn/COPY 

These concerns about realistic expectations are particularly important when it comes to children and teens who are still forming their understandings of sex and relationships. With so many young people viewing pornography so early in their lives, many end up internalizing toxic or harmful messages about sex.Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P. M., (2016) Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research. Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 509-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441COPY Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). “Without Porn…I Wouldn’t Know Half the Things I Know Now”: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of Sex Research, 52(7), 736-746. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY  That’s scary for a lot of reasons. Young people who consume porn often expect their partners to act out what they’ve seen, even if it’s painful, degrading, or dangerous.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). “Without Porn…I Wouldn’t Know Half the Things I Know Now”: A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of Sex Research, 52(7), 736-746. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY Ezzell, M. B., Johnson, J. A., Bridges, A. J., & Sun, C. F. (2020). I (dis)like it like that: Gender, pornography, and liking sex. J.Sex Marital Ther., 46(5), 460-473. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2020.1758860COPY  And as people adopt the unrealistic standards of porn, they often end up feeling bad about themselves and dissatisfied with their partners.Minarcik, J., Wetterneck, C. T., & Short, M. B. (2016). The effects of sexually explicit material use on romantic relationship dynamics. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(4) 700-707. doi: 10.1556/2006.5.2016.078COPY Morgan, E. M. (2011). Associations between Young Adults’ Use of Sexually Explicit Materials and Their Sexual Preferences, Behaviors, and Satisfaction. Journal of Sex Research, 48(6), 520-530. doi:10.1080/00224499.2010.543960COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding Of Healthy Sex

Learning about sex from porn also means absorbing a lot of dangerous ideas about sexuality and women.Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, Facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058COPY  Research estimates that as few as 1 in 3 porn videos (33.9%) and as many as 9 in 10 videos (88.2%) portrays violence or physical aggression, and that women are the targets of aggression 97% of the time.Fritz, N., Malic, V., Paul, B., & Zhou, Y. (2020). A Descriptive Analysis of the Types, Targets, and Relative Frequency of Aggression in Mainstream Pornography. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(8), 3041–3053. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01773-0COPY Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: a content analysis update. Violence against women, 16(10), 1065–1085. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210382866COPY  And while many people turn to amateur porn, which claims to be more natural and “ethical”, research suggests that amateur porn usually teaches the same toxic attitudes and reproduces the same false stereotypes as professionally produced porn—in fact, it’s often worse!Klaassen, M. J., & Peter, J. (2015). Gender (In)equality in Internet Pornography: A Content Analysis of Popular Pornographic Internet Videos. Journal of sex research, 52(7), 721–735. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2014.976781COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence

Objectification

Another reason why some porn consumers struggle with their sexual health and understanding is because of the nature of porn itself. Porn portrays people as little more than bodies that exist for the viewer’s sexual pleasure.  Unfortunately, those unhealthy perceptions can start creeping into how consumers see themselves and other people in real life. For example, research has found that pornography consumption is associated with increased objectification,Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058COPY  greater acceptance of violence against women,Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2016). Men's Objectifying Media Consumption, Objectification of Women, and Attitudes Supportive of Violence Against Women. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 955–964. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0644-8COPY  and actual acts of sexual violence.Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12201COPY  With habitual porn consumption, it can become more difficult for consumers to see themselves and others as anything more than sexual objects, and as a result, it can be more challenging to develop and nurture real relationships.Tylka, T. L., & Kroon Van Diest, A. M. (2015). You Looking at Her “Hot” Body May Not be “Cool” for Me: Integrating Male Partners’ Pornography Use into Objectification Theory for Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(1), 67–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Normalize Sexual Objectification

“There’s a certain way of experiencing sexual arousal that is the opposite of closeness,” said Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked with porn addicts for the last 30 years. “At best, it can be managed somewhat by some people, but most of the time it creates a barrier that poisons relationships.”Interview with Dr. Gary Brooks, Oct. 23, 2013.COPY 

The Gottmans also explain, “when watching pornography, the user is in total control of the sexual experience, in contrast to normal sex in which people are sharing control with the partner. Thus a porn user may form the unrealistic expectation that sex will be under only one person’s control… the relationship goal of intimate connection is confounded and ultimately lost.”Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (April 5, 2016). An open letter on porn. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-open-letter-on-porn/COPY 

Sexual functioning 

When someone regularly consumes porn, they can become accustomed to being aroused by the imagery and endless novelty found in porn.Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? Results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603COPY Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY  Pretty soon, natural turn-ons and real relationships aren’t enough, and many porn consumers find they can’t get aroused by anything but porn.Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY Voon, V., et al. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors, PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419COPY 

Thirty years ago, when a man developed erectile dysfunction (ED), it was almost always because he was getting older—usually past 40—and as his body aged it became more difficult to maintain an erection.Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY  Chronic ED in anyone under 35 was nearly unheard of.  But those were the days before internet porn. These days, online message boards are flooded with complaints from porn consumers in their teens and 20s complaining that they can’t maintain an erection. They want to know what’s wrong with their body, but the problem isn’t in the penis—it’s in the brain.

While research on the links between compulsive porn consumption and sexual dysfunctions is ongoing, many therapists and clinicians are reporting a rise of patients seeking help for such problems.Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY  The term “porn-induced erectile dysfunction,” for example, was coined by Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, the Director of Men’s Health and a Clinical Professor of Urology at Harvard Medical School. Speaking about porn-induced erectile dysfunction, Dr. Morgentaler said, “I’m worried—I’m worried about the impact of porn on men and on women… A lot of the men who grow up now watching internet porn… learn their sexuality and how to get stimulated down there in a way that is not mimicked by actual sex. What porn has figured out is what really works for the brain… It’s maximum stimulus.”Culture Reframed. Generation X-rated. Retrieved from https://parents.culturereframed.org/adolescent-brain/COPY 

Ironically, despite porn’s promise of improving consumers’ sex lives, there is growing evidence that porn consumption is linked to sexual dysfunction. Research indicates that compulsive pornography consumption is directly related to erectile dysfunction,Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY  sexual dysfunction for both men and women,Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? Results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603COPY  problems with arousal and sexual performance,Sun, C., Bridges, A., Johnson, J. A., & Ezzell, M. B. (2016). Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 983–994. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0391-2COPY  difficulty reaching orgasm,Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., Griffiths, M. D., Potenza, M. N., Orosz, G., & Demetrovics, Z. (2021). Are sexual functioning problems associated with frequent pornography use and/or problematic pornography use? Results from a large community survey including males and females. Addictive Behaviors, 112, 106603. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106603COPY  and decreased sexual satisfaction.Szymanski, D. M., & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 22(1), 64–82. https://doi.org/10.3149/jms.2201.64COPY 

In one neuroscientific study on compulsive pornography consumers, researchers found that in 11 out of 19 subjects, porn consumption had lowered the consumers’ sex drive and/or ability to maintain arousal in real-life sexual encounters, yet were still able to sexually respond to porn.Voon, V., et al. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors, PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419COPY  Like Tinbergen’s butterflies, porn can leave consumers preferring unrealistic internet porn over an actual partner.Sun, C., Bridges, A., Johnson, J. A., & Ezzell, M. B. (2016). Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 983–994. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0391-2COPY Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY 

Conclusion 

The research is clear—porn is not a harmless pastime, especially when it’s hurting a romantic partner. But the research is also clear that shame is not an effective way to motivate someone to change.Brown, B. (2012). Understanding and combating shame. Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Avery.COPY  According to one study of individuals trying to quit porn, researchers found that shame actually predicted increased pornography consumption while guilt predicted sustainable change.Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A. (2011). The roles of shame and guilt in hypersexual behavior. 18(1), 12-29. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.551182COPY  So if you’re trying to give up porn, be kind to yourself and be patient with your progress. Like anything, it takes time for the brain to recover, but daily efforts make a big difference in the long run.”

The kind of “intimacy” porn offers is nothing more than empty sexual stimulation, while real intimacy offers so much more. Real connection is a world of satisfaction and excitement that doesn’t disappear when the screen goes off. It’s the breathtaking risk of being vulnerable with another human being. It’s inviting them not just into your bed, but into your heart and life. Real intimacy is about what we give, not just what we get. It’s other-centered, not self-centered. Intimacy is understanding someone at a level porn never attempts, and having the life-altering experience of having them listen—really listen—to you in return. It’s seeing yourself through other eyes, and caring about others as much as you care about yourself. It’s the astonishing, baffling, wonderful experience that artists and philosophers have been trying to describe for centuries. Tinbergen’s butterflies were simply reacting to instinct when they were fooled by the “supermodel decoys,” but humans are not victims of their evolution. You can choose to recognize porn for the deception it is. You can reject porn’s toxic messages and choose real life, real relationships, and real love.

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